Why Chinese regulators summoned Jack Ma just before his unicorn’s record-breaking IPO

November 3, 2020, 10:50 AM UTC

Chinese financial regulators met with senior executives of financial technology giant Ant Group and Ant’s billionaire founder, Jack Ma, on Monday just days before Ant’s initial public offering, which is expected to be the biggest in history.

China’s top regulatory body, the China Securities Regulatory Commission, said in a statement on its website that Ant executive chairman Eric Jing, Ant chief executive Simon Hu, and Ma attended the meeting. Ma is Ant’s controlling shareholder, but he holds no management or operational role in the company.

The official statement didn’t say what the meeting was about, but Bloomberg reported on Tuesday that Ma and the executives met with the Chinese officials to discuss curbing Ant’s growth and to warn that Ant may be subject to more financial regulations.

“Views regarding the health and stability of the financial sector were exchanged [at the meeting],” Ant said in a statement. “Ant Group is committed to implementing the meeting opinions in depth and continuing our course based on the principles of stable innovation; embrace of regulation; service to the economy; and win-win cooperation.”

Beijing is wary of high-profile companies in the private sector that could pose a challenge to government control and dominance. It has cracked down on private firms and tycoons in the past, even as it nurtures homegrown businesses.

The Monday meeting follows China’s September announcement that it was stepping up regulations on nonfinancial companies that do business in financial sectors; the central bank identified Ant as one such company.

Ant defines itself as a technology company, but it operates various financial tools, including investment products and credit rating services. It works with banks to provide loans to individuals and small businesses, offering banks its digital platforms to access consumers.

The reach of Ant’s financial platforms is unprecedented. Ant operates Alipay, China’s largest online payment platform that’s become an essential digital tool for its more than 700 million monthly active users. More than a third of China’s population has invested in Ant’s Yu’e Bao money market fund, and some 500 million people borrowed from Ant’s lending platforms Huabei and Jiebei in the first half of 2020.

Ant’s trading debut in Shanghai and Hong Kong on Thursday is set to raise $34.5 billion. The IPO will be the biggest in history, surpassing Saudi Aramco’s $29.4 billion debut in 2019.

Ant’s success has made it a national tech champion for China, even as its rapid growth and disruption of China’s largely state-run banking system have come under regulatory scrutiny.

Ant’s IPO listing document mentions “future laws and regulations” as a risk factor that could adversely affect Ant’s business and operations, and specifically mentions the “evolving and extensive regulation” facing the financial services industry.

“[T]he intersection of finance and digital services is a new phenomenon but one that has attracted significant regulatory attention,” the document says.

In a speech late last month, Ma appeared to criticize the banks that dominate China’s financial system, calling them “big rivers” that need “ponds, creeks, and small channels” in their ecosystem to avoid “floods and droughts.”

He embraced the idea that innovation needs some regulation, but he warned against “outdated supervision.”

“We cannot manage an airport in the same way as we manage a railway station,” he said. “We cannot manage the future with the same old approach of yesterday.”